Suzette Mayr | The Sleeping Car PorterReviewed by: Helen Mason
Suzette Mayr latest novel, The Sleeping Car Porter, recently won the 2022 Giller Prize. A professor of creative writing at the University of Calgary, Mayr’s previous novels – Dr. Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall, Monoceros, Venous Hum, Moon Honey and The Widows – have also won or been nominated for various literary awards.
Into the mid-1950s, sleeping car porters attended to passengers’ every need aboard Pullman ‘sleeping cars’. Their many jobs included hauling luggage, tending to beds, shining shoes, and serving food and drink. Most porters were Black men for whom the job was one of the few job opportunities in Canada.
The Sleeping Car Porter follows a porter named Baxter in the summer of 1929. He considers himself lucky to have a job on the train, despite working hours so absurdly long that he often hallucinates. He and his fellow porters are under constant threat of losing their jobs for the smallest infraction. At the beck and call of often difficult passengers, they rely on tips to top up their meagre pay and must hide their discomfort.
On a five-day journey from Montreal to Vancouver we meet the passengers in Baxter’s section, as well the porters in adjoining train cars. Mayr brings them alive for the reader. We suffer Baxter’s gruelling sleep deprivation and his hunger (porters had to pay for their own food). Mayr’s voice takes us there as Baxter’s green cloth buffs a passenger’s already shining shoes. She also reveals Baxter’s secret life as a gay man in an era when, as Oscar Wilde’s partner described it, this was still the love that dare not speak its name.
The story speeds up when the train is stalled for days by a mudslide outside Banff. Passengers grow more unruly and we begin to learn of their dark secrets. What has happened to Miss Tupper’s fiancée? Why doesn’t “Blancmange” leave his compartment? Is there more to “Judy” than we first saw?
Hats off to Coach House Books, a small publisher devoted to writing that pushes the boundaries of convention. Enjoy this superb novel and come to the 2023 Denman Island Readers and Writers Festival where Suzette Mayr will talk about it.